A Review of Michael Snediker’s Queer Optimism
Quoted on the back cover of the Queer Optimism, Tim Dean asserts that the book “is a major-potentially paradigm-shifting-work in queer theory. He goes on to say, “I cannot remember the last time I learned so much from reading a work of literary criticism.” Such praise, from another prominent queer theorist no less, leaves potential readers with both eagerness for, and high expectations of, Snediker’s work. Although this is the first book-length publication from Snediker, those who are familiar with his other publications know to expect theory as dense as it is captivating. This is not a book for leisurely reading or a hurried glance. Here, Snediker enters into conversation with, among others, Tim Dean, Lee Edelman, José Muñoz, and J. Halberstam considering queer notions of temporality, spatiality, affect, and personhood. More directly, Snediker utilizes literary criticism to further extrapolate his rather distinct take on the hermeneutic(s) of queer theory itself.
In many ways, Queer Optimism is Snediker’s attempt to trouble the framework of queer negativity, that he believes monopolizes and limits queer theory. Almost immediately, Snediker’s introduction calls for “a reconceptualization of optimism itself” (2). Optimism, as it is conventionally understood, is often equated with prematurity or naivety, and rarely associated with queerness (1). Consequently, queer theory has historically “had more to say about negative affects than positive ones”(4). Yet, as Snediker preemptively clarifies, his redefinition of optimism aims to uncouple positivity and futurity from our understanding of optimism. Undeniably queer optimism is a direct response to what Snediker calls “queer pessimism” (i.e. Edelman). By subtly weaving his notions of queer optimism throughout his close readings of classic literary texts, Snediker posits that, thus far, queer theory has not queered queer literature to its fullest extend.
Along with this goal of expanding previously lauded queer analyses, Snediker also aims to establish, or re-establish, lyric poetry itself as an epitome of queerness. “Queer theory” Snediker remarks, “is not the only line of inquiry suspicious of the status of persons and personhood” (32). He continues to say that poetry “is especially suited to respond to queer theory’s suspicions, insofar as the latter replicate conceptions of impersonality on which much contemporary poetry criticism turns” (33). Thus Snediker situates his queer critique within the theoretical lineage of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which might exhaust scholars unfamiliar with such detailed, close readings. Nonetheless, Snediker’s project remains highly theoretical and exceedingly interdisciplinary as he invokes multiple, trans-disciplinary genealogies and positions his project in broader conversation with the projects of Winnicott, Bersani, Deleuze, Bulter, Lacan, Sedgwick, and (of course) Foucault.
However, he asserts that rather than provide a binary antipode to the death drive or other popular notions of negativity, queer optimism serves as a disruption to this structure. Rather than collapse optimism into hegemony, via Warner and Berlant, and pessimism into queerness, via Edelman’s anti-futurity, Snediker is in search of ways to read affect and personhoods that resist this paradigm (1,25,31). Like many of the theorists he cites, Snediker does not provide his reader with a direct definition of queer optimism, but rather intermittently calls attention to its various attributes throughout the introduction and the forthcoming chapters.
Albeit reductionist, queer optimism might be better understood as a new version, or close relative, to curiosity or potentiality. “Queer optimism” Snediker writes, “doesn’t aspire toward happiness, but instead find happiness interesting” (3, emphasis his). Optimism is thus not the belief in something positive or promissory, but rather an openness, an intrigue, with the idea of the positive or promissory. For Snediker it is a “meta-optimism” in that it “wants to think about feeling good, to make disparate aspects of feeling good thinkable. (3, emphasis his). In direct resistance to Edelman, Snediker asks, “why does rejection of a primary attachment to futurity…necessarily require the embodiment of negativity?” (24). Despite its misleading name, queer optimism rejects and complicates this binary framework of affect and temporality.It is not an acquiescence of the positive, but rather a queered consideration of the positive, the negative, and that which has yet to be revealed from nuance.
To do full justice to the theoretical work Snediker presents in the main chapters of Queer Optimism would require far more than the scope of this book review allows. Consequently, rather than explicating Snediker’s insightful literary criticism, what follows is a brief sketch of how each chapter’s close reading brings further clarity to his larger project. To show the ways in which queer optimism might be utilized, Snediker analyzes poems by prominent queer poets Hart Crane, Emily Dickinson, Jack Spicer, and Elizabeth Bishop. He then concludes the book by offering a reading Sophocles’ Antigone through queer optimism. In explanation of his choice of poetry, Snediker asserts that these poems are “striking as experiments in the very forms of affect and personhood” he seeks to rescue (31). Furthermore, he finds that “these poems bear patient curiosity toward their own unfamiliarities; that is, these poems treat as unfamiliar that with which criticism prematurely has dispensed as exhausted” (31). Although readers will likely agree with the strong evidence Snediker gives in support of this assessment, they may also tire of his repeated assertion that prevailing interpretations simply do not queer these poems enough.
That being said, it is undeniable that Snediker’s reading of these poems pushes the theoretical possibilities of queer criticism, and provides enticing new ways to understand lyric poetry. Chapter One, devoted to Hart Crane, focuses on the prevalence and significance of the smile in his work. Where other critics (Dean and Edelman among others) have read pessimism in Crane’s work, Snediker sees the repeated use of the disembodied smile as a purposely unintelligible metaphor that escapes temporality “as unyielding rhetorical and affective phenomena” (52). Through what Snediker understands as a direct “departure from the pessimism of T.S. Eliot’” Crane invokes the figure of the smile as a “symbolic identification not with any positive entity but with an absence, a rupture” (47, 74). In relation to his theory of queer optimism, Snediker sees Crane’s “smilerless smile” as an allusion to personhoods that refuse futurity or critical negativity, but instead perpetually adhere to an elusive lyric present (36, 59, 78).
Chapter Two further explores queer notions of affect through the work of Emily Dickinson (83). Snediker immediately states his disinterest in Dickinson’s “lavender tints” or the moments of Butlerian performance often found in her poetry (80). Rather, his interests are found in Dickinson’s use of masochism and pain as “a site of strategy and opportunity” (86). Like queer optimism, Snediker finds Dickinson to be interested in critiquing how we understand pain and happiness. Pain, with its “ethical, aesthetic and epistemological thresholds” provides Dickinson with a valuable site of inquiry (95). Like Crane, Dickinson queerly employs smiles within her poetry by detaching the smile from its smiler (101). However, Crane’s detachment leaves the “smilerless smile” lost in the context of the poem, and Dickinson’s detachment leaves the “smilerless smile” lost in the poem without context (101). Dickinson’s personification of emotions, without persons, leaves readers feeling lost within her poetry. Loss, like Dickinson’s pain, provides a moment for queer optimism’s arrival.
Snediker then connects Dickinson’s poetry to Spicers work by introducing his notions of “an aesthetics of optimism” or more directly, “aesthetic persons” (124). Aesthetic persons, as explained through Spicer’s Billy the Kid in Chapter Three relate directory to a “theory of seriality” and both notions significantly inform queer optimisms endeavor (127). Although Snediker barely expands either theory, it seems they both refer to the creative constructiveness of personhood (in both poetry and material reality) and the endless variations of selfhood that rise from the inherent failure of Butlerian performance (153). Spicer’s Billy the Kid stands as a lyric presentation not of deconstruction, “but a more complicated ontological reconstruction” (165).
Snediker then uses Spicer’s poetic love for Billy the Kid to transition into Chapter Four and his understanding of as Elizabeth Bishop’s love for Hart Crane. More straightforward than pervious chapters, this analysis uses Bishop’s poetry to critique previous understandings of queer love and subsequently offer a new kind of queer love that is supported by Snediker’s notion of “lyric threshold.” First, Snediker wants to disengage queer love from queer erotics, and through Bishop’s poems he postulates Bishop’s quite literal love for Crane, not in spite of, but because of, their respective lesbian and gay identities (168-192). In yet another dense theoretical move, Snediker introduces the “lyric threshold” as that which “designates the indistinguishability of one term from the other, rather than the limbo between them” (192). In perhaps the book’s most brilliant passage, Snediker writes:
If queer theory (following deconstruction) has often taken as given the fictiveness of natural categories, queer optimism asks in part for reparation of the natural. Queer optimism insists that we need not choose between the natural and its discontents. Rather, it insists that we admit to the difficulty of making such a choice, admit to the sacrifices and consequences such a choice entails. In choosing not to cede to the mandate that we fight for fictiveness (figuration) over fact (literalism), we discover a different critical vantage, freed from the compunctions of taking seriously forms of being already foreclosed as ideologically antagonistic to queer undertaking (193).
Queer optimism asks “what if?” and considers “both/and” instead of “either/or.” What if a lesbian loved a gay man? What if personhood was thought of as both fictitious and truthful, both singular and multiple? What if affect were as suspended in temporality as it is fleeting? What if people were? Could queerness be found outside of anti-futurity without adhering to hegemonic optimism? And so Snediker follows this pattern by concluding Queer Optimism with his response to Butler’s Antigone’s Claim: “Why can we not take Antigone at her word? (218).
Just as readers might find themselves unfamiliar with Antigone’s crisis, or the Derridian reference titling the epilogue (Affirmez la suvie), readers are likely to find Queer Optimism, in its entirety, somewhat daunting. Luckily, as dense as they might be, Snediker’s theorizations become easier to apprehend as chapters present themselves. Just as each chapter presents is own literary analysis, each chapter introduces yet another theory to be further explored that could easily fill its own book length project. Without question, Snediker’s work does in fact present the potential paradigm shift Tim Dean suggested. By troubling both queer literary criticism and queer theory at large, Snediker not only shifts current conversations within the field, but more importantly leaves readers asking questions and wanting more.
Snediker, Michael D. Queer Optimism Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.